Alexandra Fuller – A Wayback Wednesday Interview

Alexandra Fuller
Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller was born in England, raised on remote farms in three southern African countries, and lives now in Wyoming.  She has written six books of non-fiction, of which four are memoirs, and one novel.  Her articles and reviews have appeared in the New Yorker Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, Granta, National Geographic Magazine, Vogue and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications.  She is the author, most recently, of Travel Light, Move Fast.

I am a year older than you and grew up in Harare and Bulawayo. When I mentioned your first book to my sister (who still lives in Zimbabwe), she said “Oh, yes. Bobo Fuller, she’s Vanessa’s sister”.  So although I keep thinking we’ve never met, we may very well have.

I think it was in Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight that you mention a German and an American hitchhiker. My eldest brother, who was travelling up from SA to spend Christmas with us in what was then Salisbury picked up what I am convinced were those same two guys. They ended up staying a couple of nights at my parents’ house. Never mind six degrees of separation, it feels like one or two at most.

A: Ha ha, the notorious hitchhikers.  Tiny world.

Is it only here that we have the sense of the world being such a small place, where we all know each other, or have you found that sense of community in America too? For example, I spotted your name in the acknowledgements for Where The Crawdads Sing and I wondered about the writing community there…

The world is a small place wherever you go, but I don’t feel the same sense of community here as I do/did in Zimbabwe partly because in Zimbabwe everyone is so involved in everyone else’s business. We were and are I think trauma bonded to the place and to each other, co-dependent, and passionately attached to our stories, our ideas of ourselves.  Some of that comes from blood – inherited, spilled, shared – and some of it from the very real belief we had, all of us, that we are and were living in God’s country.

So although I live in the States, I don’t think it’s an accident that the creative folks who inspire and support me and who feel brethren and breath to me are all southern African.  The Zimbabwean actor, Rick Cosnett, the South African actress, Embeth Davidtz, and my closest friend from childhood, Iris Mwanza who is working on her first novel.

I do know, meet and read writers from around the world, but Iive in a pretty isolated place, and I find life – my own life and work and writing – a full time job. 

Your latest memoir is called Travel Light, Move Fast. Tell us what it’s about and where the gorgeous title originated.

Travel light, Move fast is a book about my father’s life as seen through the prism of his death which was as extraordinary and full-on as anything and everything he did.  I was writing the book – I was about a third of the way through – and really in a lot of pain around losing my Dad, when my son died. 

After that, the book became about finding out how to survive the worst thing. In a way, it became my own instruction to myself.  I think I knew that if I was going to survive losing my father, and all the losses that piled up after his death, I needed to emulate the things I most missed about him, about my son.

The title is a description of how my father lived.  He didn’t accumulate much emotional or actual baggage.  He moved through life at rocket speed.  And he lived fully, deeply, totally.  Every moment to him was a big moment.  He was larger than life, partly because life was so large in him, and to him.

I have wondered my whole life how he coped with losing three children, and then I had the dark privilege of finding out.  He always said suffering and loss does not make us different from the rest of humanity, it makes us the same.  At a certain level, our privilege and comfort – and in our part of the world, it doesn’t take much to be more comfortable, more privileged than most people around us –  to isolate and insulate us from the rest of humanity.  Suffering, humility, deep pain: that’s the moment when we see we’re all just a few disasters, or one disaster, from being on our knees.

My father was, like most white men who chose to come out to what was then Rhodesia in the early 1970s, on the make in the most coded, and glorified way imaginable.  Although the white settlers touted themselves as heroes, we all know what our leadership looked like because most of us white families were headed up by forceful men. 

Life was my father’s great teacher: three lost children, a lot of lost lands, lost income, lost “status” (I use that word advisedly since “status” wasn’t earned but rather it was arrived at by force under Rhodesia’s white majority rule.)  There is something about losing all of that, shedding the arrogance, the racism – which is work, a deconstruction of self, a reconstruction of a worldview – that meant my father kept shedding and shedding the trappings not only of comfort, but also of his own misguided beliefs.

In the book you speak about the hypocrisy of white Rhodesians. I cringe now when I think of how brainwashed I was – I knew all the words to “Rhodesians never die”, had a Rhodesian Front t-shirt that I proudly wore. The scales only fell off my eyes when we moved to Johannesburg and I went to a progressive school where I was taught the reality of the situation. When did that happen for you?

In my experience, the undoing of my white supremacist training is an ongoing and brutal process: It’s well known that childhood learning makes a deep, lasting impression.  So one scale fell from my eyes when I was 11 (at the end of the war), another when I had children of my own and wanted to teach them how to live in a just, equitable way, another when I started to see the template of global white supremacy not only in southern Africa, but also here in the States (on native American reservations) and everywhere I went as a reporter (Haiti, Angola, Chile, Mexico, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe).  It was something I couldn’t deny and can’t deny and of which I remain a part: communities of color, and indigenous folks the world over have been brutalized by global white supremacy. 

I am aware that I must have continuing blind spots and lingering prejudices.  In part, I know this, because it took me longer than it should have to see that the ongoing poverty and abject oppression of black and indigenous communities – in particular – the world over was an arrangement, not an accident. 

So, scale by scale, I am un-believing the internalized hate and fear and arrogance of our collective, blind and brutalizing beliefs.  But it’s an ongoing undoing.

I’ve always been in awe of your honesty in your memoirs. Your family refer to them as your ‘awful books’. You say they hate them. Would you prefer it if they didn’t read them? Do you find yourself self-censoring in case people get offended?

If my family read my books or not, I think I am at peace with their choice.  And I can see – finally – how painful it must be for them to be the vehicle through which I have exposed the costs of white supremacy on the supremacists themselves: before you can begin to dehumanize another person, you have to dehumanize yourself.  If I really dig deep, then I have to admit that writing about “other” is of course just another way of exploring myself, and my own beliefs, growth and truth.

I think too that as long as my father was alive, I also felt a greater restraint than I do now, partly because I think it’s the way we’re raised: we go after our mothers, our sisters, the women in the family, and we often leave the men in their withdrawal or dysfunction. Obviously, this restraint isn’t noticeable on the page: People experience my work as “brutally honest” but I also think that’s because most of us in the white settler community – at least the rough, racist, rural white settlers I know – are in so many stages of conditioned collusion, and denial. 

White noise, white lies, white wash: I have spent a career and a lifetime trying to bury under the skin of my own white body, and the white bodies around me to find our point of departure. I mean, what turned us into the people we are, and why? 

The hard part for me is, I assume, an assumption that if you write or say a truth about yourself, or others, that you have no love for yourself or others. That is a terrible, damning and damaging fiction that turns the white community into a group of either unconscious collaborators, or terrified withdrawn defensive husks.

To be fully alive, is to grasp at all the complexities of what make us work, and what allows us to break open. 

I suppose that if we’d been the sort of family to sit down and discuss issues, actually hash out our pain, our addictions, our cruelty, our love, our losses, the books would have been different, and perhaps not so painful for my family to read.

And, as much as I am accused of ‘brutal honesty’ these books ARE the self-censored books, written in the hope that people aren’t offended, but inspired. I was as shocked and hurt by my family’s reaction to my books as they were by the books themselves. I think that’s how it is when someone in a family breaks the code as publicly as I did. It’s not as if I wrote secrets: we all know each other’s stories and lives in Zimbabwe and Zambia, but that I went beyond the imagined boundary of those secrets.

We believe ourselves safe in the refuge of our clubs, our homes, our families. We don’t expect our kids to grow up and shine lights on our dysfunction.

I try now to work toward my own healing, health and liberation. If that is offensive to people, it’s probably a sign that those things are not alive in their own experience and it’s a huge threat to ego and self to have a so-called truth-sayer, a seer, bring that awareness to you.

In the case of most readers, they can distance themselves from the narrative enough to feel where it resonates. But if you are the person in the book, that distance is impossible. I know when I read what others write about me, I am aware that what I read is their mind and story and soul, not mine.  But it has taken me a long time to learn that; I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that work from others. 

Do you think people are nervous around you – in case they land up in one of your books?

If they’re not, they should be. (I actually snorted my tea at this point 😊😊😊)

In terms of process, how does it differ for you writing memoir compared to writing fiction? Is one easier to write than the other?

Fiction is freeing. I can be more honest and truthful in fiction and not worry about offending an individual, although all my work risks offending someone. If I wasn’t taking that risk, then I might as well journal and keep my work safe and unexamined.

I always say that a white settler writer has no choice but to court eviction from her tribe. Ours is the loneliest mission, at least to begin with, because we’re challenging the dominant narrative from within. That said, the narrative has always been challenged in music, art, literature, but I think there is a lot of trepidation about reading something that might dismantle you, rather than affirm that your illusions are safe, and correct.

I’ve read that you live in a yurt. Firstly, what is a yurt (have to confess that I had no idea) and is that where you do most of your writing?

For the last 5 years, I have lived in a yurt which is a version of a Mongolian nomad home. A hut made of lattice and fabric with a wood stove, and not much else. And yes, I have written there, and I write there now, mostly. 

But/and I am a woman and a mother, so I write where I can. I have three children – one an ancestor, now, but nonetheless my child – so I have written while breastfeeding, and in the car waiting to pick up a kid from hockey or lacrosse, or wherever I can grab a moment to myself. I have a few acquaintances who write in the valley where I live. The men need dedicated space to write, the women write the way we do everything, with a baby on one hip, and supper on the go.

Living in a yurt has been healing and a teacher, but the yurt was an accident. I fell in love with a person who lived in a yurt, then I fell in love with the yurt (it may have been the other way around to begin with, to be honest). To live in one room, cook, eat, sleep, bath, means you have to live very deliberately and correctly but there is a holiness to having everything you hold dear in a few round feet.

It took me a while to learn how large and entitled my life had become since I’d left home in my early 20s, but once I got the hang of it, I found being in a small, living space was incredibly healing, and it becomes part of who you are. In the winter here for example, where it routinely gets deeply below freezing even in these profoundly climate-changed times, there is a wondrous living meditation to keeping the fire going. 

We chop wood, and carry our water into the yurt (there is no plumbing) and compost our waste.  You touch, know, see, carry and deal with everything you produce and everything you need. It’s been an easy and wonderful way for me to get ever smaller. The real bonus is that it’s not very expensive to live in what amounts to a fancy tent, so I can keep writing in my brutally honest way, and not worry about selling out to pay the mortgage or for some unsustainable lifestyle. 

What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation? I think it’s a tricky one because it would be bloody boring if we all just wrote about people that were the same as us. Do you think it’s about the intention behind what you write?

I have written a novel set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota which borders Wyoming (we too have a large Indian reservation in Wyoming, the Wind River Reservation) so I have given deep thought to this matter. I still am not sure that I SHOULD have written that novel, as a white settler immigrant. I can be persuaded either way.

That said, I think if a white writer/artist/singer/dancer is going to appropriate a non-white culture, then they should also have to appropriate the ongoing and historic oppression and trauma that whiteness has inflicted on others. And, they should also have to powerfully, meaningfully and actually contribute to dismantling the systems that have led to the oppression both within themselves and within the culture.

This is a tough, and ongoing process. For me, before I can write about another culture, I need to do the deep work of knowing the stages of white racial and cultural development that are the flip side of the coin. I have been reactionary – I was that white woman running around telling all white people “we’re all racists!” – and I have been strident in my dismantling. It took me a long time to see that there’s a period in one’s development (or dismantling) out of white supremacy that we simply slide into being a white savior, or, in the words of the great, late Zimbabwean poet and activist, Freedom Nyamubaya, a “racist progressive.”

I do know that dismantling my conditioning is my life’s work, and that the more I dismantle, the more I see how attached to my mantled self I have been most of my life, how unquestioning, how complacent. 

On the whole, I think white artists need to stay in their lanes unless they have done the work to make art from the much richer, less amputated, land-attached cultures around us. It’s too easy to say, art has no borders, but that has been not true for most of humanity’s existence.

Just take the example of Rhodesia: black writers were banned from writing in English, from writing about the political oppression they were experiencing, from serious attention in our schools and universities. White writers were celebrated for their mediocre reassuring palliatives that pushed out the more essential, discomforting work from anyone courageous enough to take it on, regardless of their ethnicity.

If you are doing the essential work as a white writer in non-white spaces, you lose your protection and your privilege, to some degree (although white privilege is so ubiquitous and universal, it’s pretty hard to shake). So while it’s easy to understand why black writers were banned in Rhodesia, let’s not forget that the Nobel Prize winning author, Doris Lessing, was also banned in Rhodesia, and expelled from the country for her shocking, brilliant dismantling of the white myth in THE GRASS IS SINGING. If you are not coming up against resistance to your work, then I think there’s a danger you are not yet dismantled enough to take it on because the truth is, on the whole, white settlers have written their narrative all over the lives, experiences, and truths of the world’s majorities, contributing to confusion and a kind of tranquilized, reassured readership of white readers and the shocking resurgence of white nationalism we see across the globe.

At very least, paying a reader from the culture about which you are writing to critique your work goes some of the way to ensuring that if there is offensive, damaging, blind, reactive arrogance in the writing, the writer can do some self-examination and see if he/she/they are ready to write about a culture not their own. That said, I am not sure how well white settlers understand themselves.  White academics have made a fetish out of “ethnic studies” but as whites we haven’t done much to study and explain ourselves as an ethnicity. That is starting to change, but it’s been a slow, frustrating process.

For me, it’s both a very easy step: Deep humility. And a very hard step: Deep humility.

You have endured devastating loss in your life. All I can say is I am so sorry for what you have been through. Has writing your pain been your way of surviving?

In a way; writing the stories through and through until I could find the thread of light, the optimism, love, wisdom is the beginning of surviving the pain. But then, putting the stories down and living from the place within me that is beyond my story, that has no biography, and is attached to the primordial intelligence (or god, or the infinite, or whatever you believe or say) – that’s the real gift. Then I not only survive the pain of life – unavoidably, life is suffering – but instead thrive in the realm of all that is holy and whole. 

You spoke in an interview about how your family don’t really do grief – and I think that’s true of a lot of us. Why are we so afraid of grieving?

Grief requires us to dismantle our ego, to let go of our childish beliefs about what ‘should be’ and to work toward accepting what is. It’s incredibly threatening to a person’s sense of self.

Is there another memoir on the cards for you or are you done? What are you working on now? 

I am not sure. 

Any advice for aspiring authors (besides don’t do it).

If you want to write, then you should do it. Wake up at 4 am in you have to, write until your words have accumulated. Write as if your life depends on it.

(Ps…as an aside, Alexandra wrote nine novels before ‘Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” was published. Yes, you read that correctly. NINE.)

What South African/African books do you recommend for this holiday season?

Well, I am not sure I have a holiday season list, but there are a couple of wonderful new books that came across my awareness this rather strange and difficult year, one from Zimbabwe, and one from Zambia:

Tsitsi Dangarembga has a beautiful, poignant, timely sequel to her astonishing debut called This Mournable Body.  As an aside, here’s a review I wrote for the NYT

Namwali Serpell has written an astonishing, seriously impressive first novel, lush and big and truly impressive.  The Old Drift is something to take onto the back porch for a few days, and to lose yourself by.

Thank you for taking part in #FridayReads. Come and visit us soon, my book needs to be signed! Xxx

I have read all of Alexandra’s memoirs, they are beautifully evocative and I have thoroughly enjoyed them. If you’re looking for something to read this holiday season, look no further…